Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford


  • Kathleen J. WaitesEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3179-1



“Advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes” (English Oxford Living Dictionaries).


Feminism’s history is both a compilation of women’s experiences and a record of the different strategic interventions employed to argue women’s cause (Joan Wallach Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History).

Arguably one of the most maligned and misunderstood of terms, “feminism” has a long, complex, and dynamic history. Prejudices and politics aside, far from being a monolithic ideology, feminism is more aptly characterized as “feminisms” owing to the various theoretical approaches associated with it, such as liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, socialist feminism, radical feminism, intersectional feminism, transfeminism, anarchist feminism, and transnational feminism. Depending on both its national and cultural context, feminism may also stress different aspects of, and remedies to women’s social and political oppression. Whereas Western feminism might focus more on individual rights, such as equal pay and opportunities for employment advancement, Eastern European or Latin American feminism might emphasize collective concerns such as labor rights. However, all feminisms necessarily subscribe to the denotative meaning identified in the Oxford English Living Dictionary (cited above) and are committed to women’s advancement. How sex inequality is manifested and how best to address it has been a matter of debate, hence the term feminisms. “Central to feminism is the view that women’s” secondary status in patriarchal societies “is socially constructed, and therefore open to change” (Hannam 2007). On the basis of this shared fundamental meaning, the singular “feminism” may be accurately used. Moreover, as feminist scholar Lorna Finlayson argues, feminism is best understood as a combination of “theory” and “praxis” (2016); that is, the activism associated with the various theoretical approaches.

Women’s Oppression

Just as feminism is dynamic and responsive to cultural conditions, the longstanding patriarchal system that it challenges is neither static nor universal. Historian Estelle B. Freedman explains: “Prehistoric artifacts suggest that men and women have at times shared spiritual prestige” (2002), which is a key source and justification for a dominant governing system, and prehistory offers ample examples “in ancient Egypt and among Bedouins in pre-Islamic Arabia” of powerful female leaders (Freedman 2002). Given evidence of more egalitarian societies in pre-history, historians such as Gerda Lerner and Karl Marx have speculated about patriarchy’s origins (Freedman 2002). Some feminists have theorized “the subordination of women and found their explanation for it in the male ‘need’ to dominate the female” (Scott 1999), while Estelle Freedman explains how “a shift from subsistence agriculture to trade fostered … more highly stratified societies” (2002). Colonialism in Asia and the Americas also exacerbated unequal gender relations in the developing world: “Colonialism transported many ideas about gender that both reinforced existing inequalities and introduced new ones” (Freedman 2002). Whatever its origin, or origins, the institutionalization of the gendered hierarchy privileging men over women gave rise to feminism, and it coincided with the shift to a land-based economy driven by trade and private property ownership, wherein the female was regarded as the property of her father or husband. Traditional values and social expectations around women’s childbearing and mothering have also played a major role in women’s oppression. Moreover, against the backdrop of both nationality and ethnicity, it is difficult to disentangle the interlocking systems of capitalism and patriarchy, since the one fuels and reinforces the other.

Origin of “Feminism”

The term feminism, which originated with the French word “feminisme,” entered the English language in the late nineteenth century (New World Encyclopedia). Both the term and the political movement associated with it arose in western society in the eighteenth century as a response to patriarchy’s reliance on the political and social oppression of women as a class. Challenges to the status quo and women’s oppression, however, date back at least to the middle ages in France, with Cristina de Pisan’s bold call for women’s separate education in The Book of the City for Ladies, circa 1405. “Arguably the first woman in Europe to earn a living as an author” according to the World Digital Library, de Pisan “is widely regarded as an early feminist who spoke out for the rights of women and espoused female achievement”. Inklings of “feminism” of a sort may also be found in the life and writings of the Greek poet Sappho, the German ascetic and composer Hildegard of Bingen, and the English anchoress Julian of Norwich from the early medieval period. In England, the seeds of modern feminism date back to the late sixteenth century (Finlayson 2016). British pamphleteer Jane Anger, whose name is a possible pseudonym, mounted an angry and vigorous challenge to the artificial constraints by which women were denied access to education, prevented from developing their intellect, and then unfairly condemned for their ignorance (Finlayson 2016). Similarly, in Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen in Religion, Manners, Arts and Tongues, Royal governess Bathsua Makin “insisted … on the importance of women receiving an education” (Walters 2005). A rash of feminist proposals and polemics followed in America as well as Great Britain. In her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft advances the views of de Pisan, Anger, Makin, and others, with her rigorous philosophical analysis of the conditions and deleterious effects of women’s secondary status (Finlayson 2016). Wollstonecraft argues that providing women with an education would counteract women’s oppression, specifically the sexual double standard. It would also correct the shallowness of “feminine” socialization that made women vain and prepared them for a life of domesticity and little else. She situates her argument within the framework of liberalism, and the late eighteenth century’s emphasis on reason and the French “Rights of Man” that countered blind faith in the monarchy and church and culminated in political revolutions in France, Great Britain, and America. Wollstonecraft contends that allowing women to cultivate their intellect would necessarily make them better wives and more moral and fit mothers of the new Republic’s future citizens. In Germany, “Helene Lange and Bertha Pappenheim pressed for equal education and careers for women” while “political liberalism in Scandinavia encouraged women’s societies in support of education and the Swedish Society for Married Women’s Property Rights” (Freedman 2002).

Although these early advocates for women’s rights were forward thinking and radical for their eras, they do not go so far as to lay claim to full civil and political equality with men in their respective discourses. That demand would be more clearly articulated in the 1848 “Declaration of Sentiments,” modeled on America’s Declaration of Independence and presented at the Seneca Halls Women’s Rights Convention in Albany New York, calling for women’s “equal treatment under the law, equal right to education, and the equal right to vote” (“Rights for Women: The Suffrage Movement and Its Leaders”).

Major Traditions of Feminism: Liberal Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Radical Feminism

Liberal feminism stems from the natural rights doctrine that emerged during the Enlightenment period, and the notion “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …” (Declaration of Independence). Women were not included in this doctrine because of the widely held, albeit mistaken belief that women were biologically, morally, and intellectually inferior to men and lacked the capacity to reason, an essential ingredient for citizenship (Hannam 2012). Finlayson explains that liberal feminism’s defining features emphasize: “Individualism” (that is, “‘autonomy,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘rights’); ‘Distribution,’” or the equitable distribution of “wealth” as well as “costs”; “Abstraction,” wherein “the liberal theorist may begin from a reflection on the concept of ‘equality’ or ‘justice’” in order “to produce normative principles”; Positivity, and the emphasis on what could/should be done; and Capitalism, by which liberal feminism is “committed to a capitalist economic framework of one kind or another” (2016). In sum, liberal feminism is tied to a political ideology born of the Enlightenment period, as well as to any of its associated shortcomings. In contrast to Liberal Feminism and its cozy relationship with a capitalist economic structure, Marxist Feminism involves “a commitment to … social change; an emphasis on social class and social struggle” while advocating “the revolutionary replacement of capitalist relations of production with communist ones” (Finlayson 2016).

Marxist feminism sees women’s largely uncompensated labor and oppression as the result of class, or economic oppression. Accordingly, this condition may be remedied by replacing capitalism with some form of socialism to regulate production and distribution more equitably, through communism (Cuba, China), or social democracy (Canada, Norway) as examples. From a Marxist perspective, liberal (or mainstream) feminism disregards socioeconomic class differences and focuses too narrowly “on the concerns of (white) middle-class women … preoccupied with formal rights and freedoms like suffrage, and neglecting the issue of the material deprivation suffered disproportionately by women” (Finlayson 2016).

Radical feminism: While liberal feminism emphasizes equality and individual rights, radical feminism speaks in terms of “‘oppression,’ domination,’ ‘exploitation,’ ‘violence,’ and ‘subordination,’” and “concrete relations of power” (Finlayson 2016). In particular, radical feminism is concerned with violence against women in its myriad forms (prostitution, pornography, rape, etc.). Both radical feminism and Marxist feminism challenge fundamental sociopolitical and economic structures within which liberal feminists try to work; whereas liberal feminists work to change laws and policies, radical and Marxist feminists see the patriarchal and capitalist systems as fundamentally unjust and incorrigible.

The Waves of Feminism

Scholars have long used the “wave” metaphor to describe modern feminism’s major advances, although the concept can be misleading. For instance, Laura Finlayson observes how its usage tends to obscure ongoing feminist activity that occurs between the major cultural developments in the waves (2016). Given this caveat, however, the wave metaphor can be a useful way to describe the surge of social and political energy that occurred during watershed moments, resulting in significant gains for women. Feminist history “identifies two key periods of political activism – ‘first-wave’ feminism, c. 1860s to 1920 and ‘second wave’ feminism in the 1960s and 70s” (Hannan 2007). Less politically but more complicated and culturally significant third- and fourth-wave feminisms have their own idiosyncratic features. Although there have been positive outcomes associated with each wave of feminism, oversights and limitations have caused contention. Additionally, to some extent each wave, intending to rectify errors or oversights of the previous waves of feminism, inevitably make their own.

First-Wave Feminism: Suffrage

Although agitation for women’s rights had been simmering for centuries, the Seneca Falls Convention served as a key rallying point and catalyst to modern feminism’s first major wave. June Hannam notes that by this time “women in Europe, America, New Zealand, and Australia” had started organizing “to achieve changes and improvements in the social, political and economic lives of women” (2007). According to Hannan, agitation for suffrage was not an isolated social movement but “part of a much broader campaign – to free slaves, to introduce representative government, to advance the rights of workers and to achieve property reforms” (2007). In America, many activists were also involved with the temperance crusade. Notably, Quakers in America and Great Britain were pioneers in both the feminist and abolitionist movements.

Organizers in the first-wave rallied around the call for suffrage which “held a central place in histories of feminism, especially in Britain and the United States” (Hannan 2007). While necessarily concerned with key issues such as property rights, access to education and employment opportunities, many American and British activists viewed suffrage as the key to unlocking women’s prison of oppression. By contrast, French feminism, which was tied to Republicanism, was slower to unfold and focused on educational and legal reform (Hannan 2007). It cannot be overstated how unconventional, and at times dangerous it was for women activists to venture out of the home and trespass onto public (male-dominated) spaces as these early feminists assuredly did in order to speak out against slavery and on behalf of women’s rights. Although lower class women worked in factories, and later in retail, and female slaves worked in the plantation fields, women’s socially sanctioned place was in the domestic sphere, and only disreputable women ventured in public alone. Nevertheless, activist women defied social convention, and their methods of activism varied from country to country. Generally, in addition to lobbying political leaders, activists met in small groups, circulated petitions, and wrote and distributed pamphlets and leaflets (Hannan 2007). Under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, British women resorted to minor acts of violence after years of campaigning with more politic approaches failed to win them the vote. Following Britain’s entrance into the war, however, women activists turned their energies to the war effort, and by 1918 Parliament conceded and women (over the age of 30, initially) were granted the right to vote.

A small cadre of activists, in particular Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, organized the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention and laid the groundwork for the American feminist movement. Stanton and Anthony headed up NAWSA (National Woman’s Suffrage Association) for the express purpose of getting individual states to ratify Suffrage and strengthen their hand for a federal amendment. By design, the American movement for Suffrage did not involve violent methods, although college-educated leaders, in particular Quaker Alice Paul along with Lucy Burns, participated in the British women’s movement and were inspired by their zealous sisters’ hunger strikes, and other radical actions that often sent them to prison. Marking the difference in methods, British activists were called Suffragettes, while American activists went by the name Suffragists. Together with Carrie Chapman Catt, British born Anna Howard Shaw, inheritor of Susan B. Anthony’s moral mantle (American National Biography Online), took over NAWSA and its tedious state-by-state campaign for suffrage. The group splintered, with Paul and Stone working within the CU (Congressional Union) and the newly founded NWP (National Women’s Party), to campaign more militantly if not violently for the Susan B. Anthony federal suffrage amendment to the Constitution given the sluggish pace of NAWSA’s state by state strategy. Members of the NWP and CU organized a publicity-garnering Washington, D.C. parade for suffrage the day before Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s election in March of 1913. Suffragists also brazenly picketed the Whitehouse for months beginning in 1917 and in spite of the US entrance into World War I. Holding banners quoting the Constitution, they exposed the hypocrisy in Wilson’s speeches about democracy and the rights of free people being trampled upon while ignoring women’s appeal for suffrage. In doing so these “unladylike” Victorian women highlighted their disenfranchisement, drawing both admiration and ire from the public. The “Woman Question” was taking a prominent place in public discourse, given an ethos in which the woman was viewed as the “angel of the house” who had no business engaging in politics in the corrupt, male-dominated public sphere. After hundreds of Whitehouse protestors were arrested and shipped to Occuquam Prison on the bogus charge of obstructing traffic, the battle heated up. The tipping point came with public outrage when the Virginia workhouse’s unsanitary conditions and brutal treatment of its prisoners were publicized, in particular, the force-feeding of the women-activists who had gone on a hunger strike to dispute their political arrest. By 1919, the suffrage amendment was on the floor with Wilson’s backing, and after heavy campaigning throughout the states it was ratified in 1920. Enfranchisement spread across North America and Europe and was the signature achievement of first-wave feminism; and similar “campaigns gathered momentum in the inter-war years in Latin America and parts of the Caribbean” as well (Hannan 2007). According to “Key Dates in International Women’s History”: in 1918, women in Russia went on strike for “bread and peace”, an occasion that would later be dubbed International Women’s Day, Women won voting rights in Brazil and Thailand in 1934, in Japan in 1948, and in South Korea and Israel in 1949.

While winning a political voice signified a major leap forward for women, it failed to eliminate the dense layers of cultural and legal barriers to women’s parity with men. For instance, the Comstock Law of 1873, which made contraceptives (along with pornography) illegal in the USA, was not overturned until 1962 in Griswold vs. Connecticut, and then it only applied to married couples. Unmarried individuals would have to wait another 10 years or so for legal access to birth control. Alice Paul and the NWP crusaded for the ERA (equal rights amendment) to redress such persistent legal, social, and economic impediments to women’s freedom and independence in the USA. Their efforts failed. When the ERA was taken up again during feminism’s second wave, it fell three states shy of ratification and remains unratified to this day, a clear indicator of why the work of feminism continues.

Second-Wave Feminism: Sisterhood and the Personal Is Political

The United Nations inaugurated the Commission on the Status of Women in 1947, and in a formal acknowledgement of women’s rights “issued a Declaration of Human Rights” in 1949 (Walters 2005). Several international conferences followed, attesting to the legitimacy and viability of feminist activity that continued churning between the waves. Feminism’s second major wave, or the “women’s liberation” movement, came in the wake of the civil rights movement in the USA, and it both dovetailed and at times, clashed with the gay rights and anti-Vietnam war movements in the late twentieth century. Influential texts of the second wave include Simone deBeauvoir’s rigorous philosophical analysis of the manufactured nature of women’s secondary status, in which she argues that in spite of the appearance of being natural, “a woman is not born, but made” (The Second Sex, 1949); Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), in which she critiques the institution of patriarchy; Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunich (1970) that challenges the patriarchal constructs of femininity and womanhood; and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan, a founding member of Now (National Organization of Women) identifies “the problem with no name” plaguing American middle-class women in the post-World War II years. Having been actively engaged and gainfully employed in the war effort on numerous fronts, American women were unceremoniously sent back to home and hearth upon their soldier-husbands’ return from the war. As Friedan explains, instead of finding domestic bliss as suburban housewives, many women found themselves depressed and frustrated, since they came to view the private sphere as oppressive, and proof of their secondary status.

When increasing numbers of women did enter the workforce, “they continued to be viewed as women first, workers second” (Freedman 2002). Consigned to low-paying “pink-collar” jobs, as nurses, teachers, clerks, and secretaries, women did not have access to higher paying “male-identified” jobs and professions. They also met obstacles when pursuing advanced education in male-identified fields, such as science and engineering, and had no recourse when they were underpaid or overlooked for promotions or pay-raises. Women’s desire for better employment and equal educational and financial opportunities was but one major prong of the women’s movement’s second wave. Throughout the western world women also sought sexual freedom, akin to what men enjoyed, and reproductive rights, specifically protection against pregnancy. As well, they sought legal and social protections from sexual harassment, and more crucially, from the domestic and sexual violence that had long been tolerated and gone unaddressed inside as well as outside the home. Given the high number of women’s deaths caused by “back-alley” abortions, access to safe, legal abortion was also high on the feminist agenda. These issues were identified by women in Great Britain and America who formed “consciousness-raising” groups as a mechanism for identifying “common experiences” of oppression (Walters 2005).

“Sisterhood,” according to Margaret Walters, “was one of the most popular feminist slogans in the 1960s and 70s” (2005), and marches, sit-ins, and social protests became commonplace. In 1968, activists protested the sexual objectification of women at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City by throwing girdles and bras into a trash bin, and “300 French women signed … ‘The Whore’s Manifesto’ to declare that they had had an illegal abortion … followed by a similar public declaration in West Germany’”; while women “in Britain, West Germany, and Italy” marched to “‘Reclaim the Night’ … to assert their right to be in public spaces in safety after dark” (Hannan 2007). A major outcome of second-wave feminism is the “Take Back the Night” vigils and marches that continue to be held annually in cities and on college campuses throughout the world. The “personal is political” mantra, the title of an article written by journalist Carol Hanisch (1970), aptly captures the era’s spirit, since feminists made the argument that women’s experiences of oppression are not a private issue to be ignored but a political issue requiring widespread cultural changes and significant legal remedy. Liberation was the clarion call in grass-roots campaigns throughout western countries, as Hannan explains: “emancipation implied freedom from constraints and … social policies to enable women to achieve their potential” (2007). As a result, a woman’s ‘natural’ role in the home as wife and mother became a hotly contested site that pitted feminists against those who held to traditional womanhood, ultimately contributing to a backlash against feminism. Another area of contention that drew the ire of religious and anti-feminist leaders, and continues to be a chief bugaboo of feminism, was the campaign for legal abortion.

Like feminism’s first-wave, second-wave feminism was largely spearheaded by educated white women, whose cause would ultimately be soundly critiqued for its racial, ethnic, and sexual-identity blindness. Second-wave feminists incorrectly assumed that the experiences of first-world white women were universal and applied equally to all women. For instance, Margaret Walters notes how “women in the ‘Third World’ have had to confront … more intractable problems” having to tackle “sexism in the form of deep-rooted local beliefs and practices, to do with class, caste, religion, and ethnic biases” and often in the context of nondemocratic societies (2005). Additionally, women’s rights in Muslim and African countries have lagged far behind those of western women, especially in theocratic countries, and women of color and lower socioeconomic class in all societies must contend with different priorities largely ignored in feminism’s first two waves. In Mexico, the women’s movement “concentrated on the need for legal abortion, increased sentencing for rapists, and help for battered women” (Walters 2005). Throughout Latin America, feminists “were interested in equal rights and economic redistribution”, and key concerns were with “female illiteracy, and … the miserable circumstances of … women living in shanty towns and slums” and dying from “botched abortions” (Walters 2005). In failing to consider layered forms of oppression and differences among women, in terms of ethnicity, class, religion, and sexual identity, both first- and second-wave feminism fell short of its equality aims.

In spite of its cultural blindness, however, feminism in western countries made significant inroads on behalf of many women, and on virtually all the aforementioned fronts of women’s liberation. They won landmark legislation, amassed social, political, and economic resources for their cause and weakened the wall between the public and private spheres that served to separate the sexes and fortify the patriarchal sex/gender hierarchy. In the USA, this meant the availability of oral contraceptives in the 1960s, and the inclusion of sexual harassment in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title IX (1972) guaranteed girls’ and women’s equal access to resources from educational institutions receiving federal aid, enabling them to be involved in competitive sports and earn athletic scholarships. The landmark Roe v. Wade (1973) amendment gave American women the right to a legal and medically safe abortion within limits, while abortion laws throughout Europe were loosened. In addition, contraceptive advice became more widely available, and rape hotlines and crisis centers were established, as were shelters for victims of domestic violence. Finally, Women’s History and Women’s Studies became legitimate areas of study in the academy. Academic and social programs, as well as social science research proliferated, as did textbooks that acknowledged women’s previously unacknowledged contributions to literature, history, and the sciences.

Third-Wave Feminism: Popular Culture and Personal Choice

In spite of three U.N. sponsored international conferences uniting women from around the world during the “Decade for Women, 1976–85”, second-wave feminists “in Europe and North America could see that their movement was losing momentum and had become … fragmented” (Hannan 2012). In part, this was due to the glaring differences among women that were becoming more evident and contentious, thus challenging the second-wave concept of universal “sisterhood.” Feminism’s erosion beginning in the 1980s was also exacerbated by the poststructuralist challenge to the universalist notion of “‘woman’” as having one fixed and stable meaning, especially when one’s sex is complicated by other aspects of identity (and levels of oppression), such as race or sexual orientation (Hannan 2012). “Queering’ or Queer theory in popular culture and the academy emerged from this ethos, destabilizing the heteronormative and fixed categories of gender, sex, and sexual orientation, complicating the feminist cause. Additionally, feminism in the USA found itself in an increasingly hostile political and social climate, partly as a result of its significant gains in the traditionally male workplace and on the reproductive-rights-front. The feminist challenge and changes to the status quo, together with disparaging media hype, such as the women-burning-bras-myth extending from the Atlantic City protest, gave feminism a black eye, and backlash ensued. “Postfeminism” was one response, a view which holds that, contrary to ongoing evidence of sex oppression, women have achieved equality and so feminism is no longer viable, as expressed in the 1998 ‘Is Feminism Dead?’” Time cover story. Fractured and wounded, feminism was hardly dead and the work of women’s rights continued on multiple fronts. Nevertheless, feminism found itself in a heightened defensive posture, and an increasing number of women shied away from the feminist label as a result. Because of this, as Hannan explains, the language of activism shifted away from focusing on ‘women’ to emphasizing the “health and well-being of families”, such as “in Latin America where political parties took up feminist demands around employment and social welfare, but were reluctant to pursue reproductive rights, sexuality and sexual violence” (2007). In this fractured milieu, a cultural form of feminism labeled the third-wave flourished.

Beginning in the mid-late1980s in the USA and Great Britain, the Guerilla Girls, operating anonymously and wearing gorilla masks, engaged in a creative form of guerilla warfare that took on the sexism and racism dominating the art world. They made public appearances, disseminated information, and produced art that appeared on billboards and posters. One classic example is the infamous: “Do women have to get naked to be in the Met Museum?” billboard (and poster) of a supine naked woman wearing a gorilla mask, underscoring the paltry number of art works by women artists in museums relative to art work by male artists, much of which featured naked women. In the early 1990s, the “Riott Grrrls” engaged in a similar form of activism on the punk-rock music front, signifying the birth of the “Girl Power” movement. Reclaiming “girl” from its traditionally demeaning usage, by which men might refer to mature women, and calling forth the more intact self-esteem of pre-puberty girls, these musician-activists tackled the intractable sexism in the male-defined rock music industry head-on. The more mainstream and commercially successful Spice Girls in Great Britain came both to epitomize and popularize the “girl power” movement that would, over time, become a template for similar groups such as Destiny’s Child. Originally, a call to feminist arms, “girl power” has also been co-opted and made into a marketing slogan.

Blogs and zines, or online magazines, including Bust and Bitch, proliferated during the third-wave period and into the new millennium. Zines became a virtual gathering place for young women to express their anger at the sexist world and talk frankly about “taboo topics, such as rape, incest, and eating disorders”, according to Karen Schilt in “The History of Riot Grrls in Music”. Third-wave feminism was powered by Generation X-ers, who dis-identified from their foremothers’ emphasis on sisterhood, and political action in organizations such as NOW (National Organization of Women) and the feminist publication Ms. Whereas second-wave feminists rallied in opposition to the sexual objectification of women and saw “femininity” within patriarchy as male-defined and a cause of their ongoing oppressed status, third-wave feminists claimed both their sexuality and femininity as sources of their power. They also co-opted previously derogative terms intended to keep women in their place, including “girl,” “bitch,” and “chick.” Moreover, unlike second-wavers who critiqued the traditional role of wife/mother as a key site of women’s secondary status, third-wavers instead privileged personal choice, and in this context motherhood might well be a “feminist” choice. More focused on personal empowerment than public policy and collective activism, third-wave feminism found expression in popular culture, and its principles are articulated in such texts as Jennifer Baumgartner and Amy Richards’ Manifesta. Within this brand of sex-positive feminism, superstars Madonna, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga could dictate the terms of their hyper-sexualized musical personas, offsetting charges of their sexual objectification. At the same time, an explosion of T.V. shows and films featuring women as heroes and warriors hit small and big screens: Buffy in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Ripley in the Alien film series, and the crime-fighting “angels” in three film adaptations of the 1970s T.V. show, Charlie’s Angels, to name a few. Such pop culture texts, examined through the lens of feminism, also became legitimate areas of feminist intervention and academic scholarship. As with the shortcomings of previous waves, third-wave feminism’s emphasis on individual choice and expedient connection to pop culture has morphed into a more superficial consumer and celebrity brand of feminism that privileges women of financial means, masking or diluting key feminist principles and aims in the process (Finlayson 2016).

However, the third wave did see increased awareness of and attention to previously overlooked issues of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and the ways in which these interact with sex and gender identity and add to women’s experience of oppression.

Fourth-Wave Feminism: Intersectionality and Social Media

With closer attention to the intersection of identities, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, what some are calling feminism’s fourth wave of the new millennium has seen both a re-evaluation of feminism and a resurgence of feminist activity, largely on social media and powered by the internet. According to Ealsaid Munro: “In an effort to draw attention to these axes of difference, contemporary feminists advocate several tactics, including the much-maligned practice of ‘privilege-checking’. As a tactic, privilege-checking is about reminding someone that they cannot and should not speak for others (“Feminism: A Fourth Wave?”). Intersectional feminism reflects this heightened consciousness, and it was perhaps most remarkably displayed in the 21 January 2017 Women’s March on Washington, and in cities around the world, numbering in the millions in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump, and his perceived anti-feminist and anti-immigrant platform. The march originated with a Facebook posting and was broadcast via social media, and its organizers, speakers, and protestors represented all age groups, as well as a range of ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identities, a glaring contrast to many of the protests and marches in previous waves of feminism. Still being defined, fourth-wave feminism is testimony to the fact that feminism continues to adapt and evolve in response to systematic and pervasive discrimination on the basis of sex and gender, and an increasing number of men as well as women identify as feminists. In her 2013 TEDx talk, Nigerian writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichi proudly proclaimed, “We Should All Be Feminists”, following it with an elegantly argued book-length essay in 2014 of the same title, signaling a championing of the once-scorned label. Celebrity feminists have abetted this reclaiming, evidenced in British actor Emma Watson’s work on behalf of the United Nation’s “HeForShe” campaign, and in superstar Beyoncé’s unique, if controversial, blend of black womanhood and third-wave feminism, as declared in the 2014 MTV Awards-show and expressed in her recent music and performances.


Although the feminist label remains controversial, especially among those invested in traditional femininity and traditional roles of men and women, the story of feminism continues. While it is convenient to separate feminism’s waves, it is less that they begin and end, and more that they fold into one another to create energy anew. The feminist work of providing opportunities and advancing equality on behalf of women and girls is ongoing throughout the developed and developing world and is responsive to significant contemporary issues, as well as longstanding ones, such as sex trafficking, rape and genocide as weapons of war, child marriage, and female genital mutilation.



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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Literature and Modern LanguagesNova Southeastern UniversityFort LauderdaleUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Valerie G. Starratt
    • 1
  1. 1.Nova Southeastern UniversityFort LauderdaleUSA